It Gets Easier (But It Might Not Ever Be Easy)
I wear a lot of different hats. There's the reporter hat. The host hat. The producer hat. And the educator hat.

But the hat I love the most is the one where I pick apart other people's stories and tell them how they can make them better.

The story editor hat.

At first glance, this might feel like a very bossy hat. A very opinionated hat.

(And the truth is, I have no problem being bossy. And I have ALWAYS been very opinionated.)

But over the years, I've learned that the most important part of that job isn't creating a list of all the things someone did wrong.

It's convincing them that they already have the skills they need to do it right.
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The simple fact is, making good stories is hard. There are a thousand little decisions to make, and each one has the potential to derail your story.

Make the wrong choice…and you might add confusion. Muddy up the timeline. Detract from your takeaway.

Often, when faced with all of these decisions, storytellers get stuck. They find themselves going around and around in circles, making and unmaking the same decisions. Over and over and over again.

They need help.

And that's how a very bossy and opinionated person came to be in the business of encouragement.

The other day, I met a client for coffee/tea. And as we were leaving, I found myself saying, "It will get easier."

But that didn't seem quite right, so I added, "But it will never be easy."

And then I found myself wishing I had been more encouraging, so I said, "It will get faster."

But then I had to admit, "But it will never be fast."

I have no idea if my client walked away encouraged. Or depressed. (Sorry, Frank.)

But it got me thinking about all of the ways I've found to make this kind of work easier and faster.

Because that's the goal, right?

I mean, maybe not for people with unlimited time and funds. But for the rest of us, the prospect of doing better work in less time is where it's at.

So how do we do it?
Plan…and Then Plan Some More

I used to limit the amount of research I'd do before heading out on a story. I'd walk into an event without really knowing what was going on. And then I'd ask questions until I understood.

And that worked for me. Following my curiosity led me to some really great tape.

But with narrative stories, it just doesn't work like that.

Look, my curiosity can go in a lot of different directions. Some of those directions are relevant to the story I am making. Some of them aren't.

And when interviewing someone about an important moment of their life, it can be really easy to get bogged down by details that don't matter. Tangents that have nothing to do with the story at hand.

You can find yourself with hours and hours of tape, but still missing the elements you need to craft a compelling arc.

So I go into every narrative interview with a plan.

A very, very detailed plan.

I walk in with clarity of purpose. Why am I talking to this person? What role do they serve in my story?

What moments and anecdotes do I need to get from them?

What moments and anecdotes am I going to be getting from other people?

Where are the holes? The bits of the timeline that I don't yet understand?

Are they a main character? If so, I'm going to want to get their backstory. I'm going to need to draw out their personality. Their quirks.

Are they a supporting character? Well then, maybe I don't need to understand everything about them? Maybe I can just skip to the good stuff?

Interviews rarely go exactly as planned, so you're still going to have to stay nimble. But having a really solid roadmap will help keep you from getting lost along the way.
Simplify, simplify, simplify

I'm not telling you to dumb down your story.

I looove complexity.

But I am telling you that the listener doesn't actually need to know about EVERYTHING that happened.

A lot of people get bogged down in a tedious series of story beats.

This happened.
Then this.
Then this.
Then this.
Then...

It could go on like that forever.

But you're not actually looking for EVERY beat of a story.

You're looking for the important beats.

The turning points. The moments of change. The moments of tension. Or triumph.

The moments that matter.

So go ahead and jettison the rest. It's fine.

Nobody's gonna know about the bits you've left out.
Make an Outline

Okay, I know we were all forced to write outlines in middle school. And they seemed stupid and boring and felt like such a waste of time.

We told ourselves that when we were adults, we'd never need an outline.

But I'm here to tell you, outlines are your friend.

Now, this doesn't have to be a traditional, middle school English teacher approved kind of outline.

Sometimes my outline is a bunch of story beats written on Post-It notes and arranged on a wall.

Sometimes it's a bulleted list of 2-3 word phrases.

Sometimes it's a color coded Trello.

Sometimes it's a series of headers in a Google doc.

I don't generally use a lot of words. And I don't generally spend a lot of time. But I almost always spend SOME time figuring out the structure I'm going to use to tell my story.

And so should you.

You're gonna thank me for it later.

For realz.
Trust Your Story

Okay, I've told you to plan and then plan some more. I've asked you to outline and structure. You have already put a LOT of work into your story before you sit down and write.

But I'm going to tell you now…

Writing still sucks.

It's still hard.

You're going to doubt. You're going to second guess. You're going to turn yourself around in circles.

And when that happens, I want you to breathe. Chill out. Maybe go for a walk?

And then force yourself to sit down and do the work.

Watch your story take shape.

You don't need to aim for perfection on the first draft. You've got re-writes for that.

Trust.

You've gotten this far. You have the skills to take this story where it needs to go.

Trust.

One caveat. And I really hate to say this in a newsletter that's meant to be encouraging, but...

…there will still be times when you sit down and realize, I've done this wrong.

I've started in the wrong place. I've focused on the wrong thing. I don't actually need this anecdote that I love so much.

It happens to all of us. Believe me.

How do you tell the difference between normal writing anxiety and "I've done it wrong" paralysis?

It's tough.

We all criticize our work. We struggle over every word. That's what being a writer is all about.

It's supposed to be hard.

I probably re-write every sentence at least once. Difficult concepts might take five rewrites. Very difficult concepts might take ten.

But if I find myself rewriting something for the 15th time, and every word I put on the page still makes me want to gag, I ask myself…

Is this sentence really the problem? Or have I made a mistake in my story structure?
Let It Go

Look, we all have projects that live in the back of our minds. The ones that sit there and call to us.

You might not have started working on that project yet. But before you do, I need you to do something for me.

I need you to give up on the idea of perfection.

I need you to give up on your preconceived notions of how that story will sound. The emotions it will bring. The impact it will have.

Because it's never going to work out exactly the way you imagine it will.

Don't get me wrong, the story you produce might actually turn out BETTER than the story you have planned in your mind.

But if you're wedded to the version that exists only in your imagination, you'll never be open to seeing the truth of the story in front of you.
And one more thing...

You got this.

I promise you do!

Karen
One quick announcement this week:

It's been so busy, I'm a bit behind in scheduling the Narrative Beat Community Monthly-ish Zoom Chat. Our last few chats have been productive and fun, but very sparsely attended. So I want to make sure this next one is rocking.

These chats are usually only open to members of the Narrative Beat Community. (Psst: if you haven't joined yet, check it out.)

This time, I want to open our monthly chat up to everyone, not just paying members. So if you'd like to receive an invite, simply reply to this email and let me know!